“The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever” Edited by Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2008)

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Christopher Hitchens has made quite a name for himself with his National Book Award nominated book, God is Not Great, and before the paperback edition is even out, Hitchens returns with an edited collection of “essential readings for the nonbeliever.”  The Portable Atheist may not necessarily be that “portable,” as it is a thick and oversized paperback; but is nevertheless a unique collection of Atheist writings taken from the history of the written word.

The collection begins with a lengthy introduction from Hitchens as he waxes rhapsodic about the growth of Atheism as a belief, the futility of religion, and how it has caused more harm than good.  The first piece comes from Titus Lucretius Carus in his De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things), a Roman philosopher who lived in the first century BCE.  Lucretius discusses the theory of atoms and how everything is composed of these minute building blocks; an everyday fact of life now, but something that was laughed at and mocked for much of history.  In the brief passage, Lucretius speaks of devastating storms and catastrophic events not attributable to the gods, but of something quite natural and ordinary; he even hints that there is no afterlife.  Mark Twain, a staunch evolutionist and ever a satirist of religious faith has this to say: “Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.”

Emma Goldman, a Russian-born anarchist who became a champion of civil liberties and labor rights in the United States, who was deported to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, was a strong voice in the early Atheist movement: “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”  H. L. Mencken who worked against religious fundamentalists trying to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and was made famous for his accounts of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925, in this amusing piece asks: “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?”  For the numberless amount of gods throughout the history of humanity haven’t survived – some completely forgotten, others barely recollected – and his final almost solemn comment is: “All are dead.”  Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame offers an insightful piece about being certain in his Atheist beliefs and how it is important to use the time we have now and not to waste time on thinking about the afterlife: “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

The renowned Atheist proponents are all featured in The Portable Atheist: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett; as are authors like H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and John Updike; so are poets such as Percy Blysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin; as well as scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan.  It is a fascinating and captivating collection of Atheist writings that one can simply pick up at any point, wherever one may be, and pick a reading of their choosing – whatever length or format they wish.

The final piece is from bestselling author of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who “escaped” Islam and its oppressive faith; she offers up this sobering outlook: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is Atheism.  It is not a creed.  Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell.  Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love.  There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

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